Mar 18, 2015

Your Grandfather's Beefcake: Circus Strongmen

Today every gym is crowded with guys with 60-inch chests and 20-inch biceps, but 130 years ago, they were rare. Poor nutrition, poor hygiene, and a lack of understanding of kinesiology limited the average man's ability to build  muscle.

Those few who developed muscular physiques found themselves in demand in carnivals and circuses as 'strong men," celebrated for their raw strength rather than for their size and symmetry.

But they certainly provided an erotic thrill.  Contemporary accounts often praise their masculine beauty.

The most famous of the strongmen was Apollon (the Greek god Apollo), born as Louis Uni (1862-1928), who joined the circus at the age of 14 and eventually became a headliner, appearing in music halls throughout Europe.  His act involved such feats as bending the iron bars of a cage, lifting 300-pound train wheels over his head, and holding two cars back with chains.

Donald Dinnie (1837-1916) appeared in 11,000 sports competitions, including 16 Scottish Highland Games, where he excelled in wrestling, hurdling, cable-throwing, and hammer-throwing.  He became the equivalent of a millionaire through his exhibitions in the United States and Europe, where he was advertised as "The Strong Man of the Age." In an early advertising tie-in, his likeness was put on bottles of Iron Brew, a soft drink aimed at athletes.

Interestingly, he was 6'1" with a 48 inch chest and 15 inch biceps.

At my peak condition, I had a 51 inch chest and 17 inch biceps, and I was nowhere near "The Strong Man of the Age."  Not even "The Strong Man of the Hollywood Spa.

Edward Aston was a boxer, wrestler, and finally a competitive weight-lifter.  In 1910, he won the World Middle-Weight-Lifting Championship, and in 1911 he was named Britain's Strongest Man with such feats as a clean and jerk of 282 pounds

Not bad for someone who weighted 160 pounds.  Schwarzenegger, who weighed 235 pounds, just managed a 298 pound clean-and-jerk.

He wrote an early weight-training manual, Modern Weight Lifting; and How to Gain Strength.  

Sig Klein (1902-1987) grew up in Cleveland, in the early days of physical culture.  He performed feats of strength on stage and in competitions, and in 1927 was named the world's greatest athlete by Le Culture Physique magazine.  He was featured in Ripley's Believe It or Not 10 times.

Later he moved to New York and Attila Studio, which trained athletes, bodybuilders, stuntmen, and actors, among them Zero Mostel, Montgomery Clift, Ben Gazzara, David Carradine, Joel Grey, and Karl Malden.

I don't know who this guy is, but he has quite a physique, and he has quite substantial beneath-the-belt gifts.

Thomas Inch (1881-1963), "Britain's Strongest Man," is known for lifting the "Thomas Inch Dumbbell."  It was specially designed, weighing 172 pounds (the heaviest dumbbells you can get today weigh 50 pounds).

See also: Circus World